Three Histories: The Wadsworth According to MATRIX 149

The video works featured in Three Histories: The Wadsworth According to MATRIX address the Wadsworth Atheneum’s history from distinct points of view. ‘Tis Pity She’s A Fluxus Whore was was commissioned from artist Catherine Sullivan for MATRIX 142. The original artist sheet may be downloaded as a pdf.

Strange Bedfellows

Video art, which began to be made by a few artists in the mid 1960s, has evolved into a dominant medium in contemporary art. Its consonance with the primary forms of popular culture – film, television, digital media – makes it a powerful means of speaking to our culture in a familiar voice. In contrast, performance art, which vied for attention with video and other experimental practices in the sixties and seventies, has become largely moribund. The concurrent emergence of video and performance art was indeed related; video was often a means of documenting artists’ actions. While video art has now far exceeded its documentary origins, performance art has remained relatively marginal. This may not be surprising as the ascendance of the moving image in contemporary culture has been matched by a declining interest in live theatre, particularly its more avant-garde varieties.

Enter Catherine Sullivan, whose hybrid artistic practice emerges from a profound engagement with both performance and the moving image. These interests are reflected in her education: Sullivan earned a degree in acting before undertaking a Masters in Post-Studio Art at Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles. She creates theater works that she writes, designs and directs (often combining trained and untrained performers), and video installations that are thematically related. Since graduating in 1997, her performances and video installations have drawn on an unusually wide array of theatrical genres and acting styles. The performance Dad’s Ham (1992/97) incorporated Greek Tragedy, Medieval Miracle Plays, Commedia Del’Arte, Restoration comedy and television comedy; Grisly Notes and Tones (1997/2001) was inspired by the sensationalist television documentary series When Animals Attack; an obscure seventeenth century manual on the use of the hand in public address inspired The Chirologic Remedy (1999); Oscar-winning performances in Arthur Penn’s movie The Miracle Worker provide the basis for Gold Standard (hysteric, melancholic, degraded, refined) (2001).In these works, and in her new Matrix project, Tis Pity She’s a Fluxus Whore, Sullivan marries performance and video, exploring the distinctive attributes of both forms.

Acting, as exemplified in the majority of contemporary film and television, aspires to a state of transparency. The demands of narrative realism – today’s dominant cultural mode – conspire to disguise the artifice of performance. The desire for a credible experience in television is so strong that “reality TV,” a genre of performance that elides its own particular kind of acting, has become the most important recent development. Catherine Sullivan’s work takes an antithetical position, insisting upon the presence of acting, broadly understood, in every kind of performance, from an Yvonne Rainer minimalist dance to a Hollywood audition.  Her work is intended, in tact, to reveal acting, to make it impossible not to consider that a performance is taking place. For Sullivan, “acting” is not only the formally codified practices of traditional theater. She is generally interested in the ways that bodily actions and their physical context generate meaning in all manner of performance.

Tis Pity She’s a Fluxus Whore brings together two wildly different performance traditions. One is that of seventeenth-century Jacobean drama, the other that of twentieth century Fluxus actions. Published in 1633, Tis Pity She’s a Whore is John Ford’s best-known play. This tragic story of an incestuous relationship between brother (Giovanni) and sister (Annabella) was given a controversial production at the Wadsworth Atheneum in 1943. It was presented by Atheneum Director, A. Everett “Chick” Austin, who designed the sets and costumes, and played the lead role of Giovanni. Austin’s staging of the play during wartime, with its taboo sexual theme, drew harsh criticism from conservatives. For example, under the headline, “Offensive in Many Ways,” the Catholic Transcript railed against this “elaborate production of a tedious dramatization of degeneracy.” Austin’s extraordinary period of innovation and provocation as director-impresario, which had begun in 1927, was fast drawing to an end. His departure followed soon after the production closed.

Fluxus refers to an international avant-garde movement active in Europe and the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. The term was coined by George Maciunas, an American who moved to Germany in 1961. He maintained contact with artists in New York while developing an artistic network in Europe. Fluxus was characterized by interdisciplinary and multimedia approaches, concerned more with ephemeral events, concerts, actions and publications than with making museum objects or exhibitions. Fluxus shared the earlier Dada movement’s sense of whimsy and the absurd as it aspired to bring art and life closer together, all against the anxious backdrop of cold war politics.

Catherine Sullivan became interested in a program of Fluxus actions that was presented as the Festival of New Art at the Technical Academy in Aachen, Germany, on July 20, 1964. The twelve artists who performed met with a hostile audience reaction, even to the point of physical confrontation. In different ways, both the Hartford staging of Ford’s drama and the Aachen program of Fluxus actions transgressed the limits of acceptable performance within a specific cultural context. It is this moment of rupture between performer and audience that first fascinated Sullivan and led her to bring them together as the unlikely sources for her Matrix exhibition. Here, however, the conflict between performer and audience has been transformed into a staged conflict between the sources themselves, and between their opposing styles of performance.

The 1964 program of Fluxus actions and hostile audience response are poorly documented. Sullivan undertook extensive research in Germany, interviewing several participants and assembling materials to enable her to reconstruct the program. She noticed, for example, that July 20 was Hitler’s birthday, and that many of the artists’ actions were overlaid with provocative references to Hitler and Nazism. Sullivan chose to focus on the actions of eight of the artists: Ben Vautier, Bazon Brock, Ludwig Gosewitz, Eric Andersen, Arthur Koepke, Robert Filliou, Wolf Vostell and Joseph Beuys. Combining some of the artists’ actions, she reconstructed six scenes to be played out for her own production.

In parallel to the Aachen research, Sullivan also investigated the rich history of performance at the Wadsworth Atheneum, which had been fostered by Chick Austin who in 1934 had incorporated a theater into the new Avery Memorial building. With the assistance of Atheneum archivist and Austin biographer Eugene Gaddis, she researched Austin’s final theatrical production for the Atheneum and its controversial reception. Austin’s character, Giovanni, became for Sullivan the representative figure of the play.

Sullivan’s interest in these historical sources is further confirmed by the process of her filming, which took place in the very theaters where the original productions had been mounted, the Audimax in Aachen and the Avery Memorial Theater in Hartford. This extensive research and replication of locations should not, however, imply any attempt to reconstruct either evening’s performance faithfully. Sullivan’s relation to her subjects is better characterized, in her words, by “a lack of obedience to sources.” In fact, ‘Tis Pity She’s a Fluxus Whore is a result of the condensation and displacement of two disparate productions from two different moments into an entirely new work.

Far from being a faithful rendition, Sullivan’s production thoroughly estranges her sources. Her process, in this case, has been to codify two distinctive styles of performance, one that represents Fluxus, another invoking Ford’s drama. Each style comprises both a method of acting and a mise-en-scene, including costume and lighting. ‘Tis Pity She’s a Fluxus Whore comprises six scenes that enact moments abstracted from both sources. Each scene includes a transition, where the performance style shifts from Fluxus to Jacobean and vice versa. A single actor, AndrzeJ Krukowski, plays every role, shifting seamlessly between a purposeful

Brechtian directness (“Fluxus style”) and a highly mannered theatricality (“Giovanni style”). The resulting confusion of identities and narratives undermines any comprehensible relationship to an “original” source (which has, in any case, been imaginatively reconstructed by the artist). Each scene was shot in both Aachen and Hartford, but in stylistic reverse, with a Fluxus action performed “Fluxus style” in one location, “Giovanni style” in the other. The final edited installation is a two-screen projection presenting the “same” series of actions in contrasting styles. The accompanying audio furthers the contrast, as a mannered female voice and a German-accented male voice deliver lines from ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore and Fluxus performance instructions. Not only does Sullivan’s treatment and presentation frustrate all narrative sense, the idea of codifying a “Fluxus style” is inimical to the spirit of Fluxus, which took an anti-aesthetic position opposed to the notion of style.

Catherine Sullivan has described her method in producing this work as one of “forced relationality.” In other words, the artist has taken two utterly unrelated performances, each with its own strongly articulated logic, and forced them into a new relationship. Clearly, the effect is not a synthesis or narrative resolution of previously unrelated forms. Rather, the result is an impossible excess of meaning, a piling up of significations, an accumulation of gestures. Sullivan offers an intensification of expressive form without recourse to any coherent expression. In this way, the artist invokes the classical modernist resistance to popular culture through the work’s unapologetic “difficulty.” She has drawn a parallel between her work and the reductive modernist project in painting; in stripping theatrical actions of their contextual and narrative coherence, Sullivan forces us to observe in isolation the most basic tropes of performance. Paradoxically, the result is not a minimalist monochrome but an elaborate, densely layered, precisely detailed polyphony. Amidst this raucous play of conflicting images and associations there remains one constant, the body of a single performer. This multivalent body, which both invites and refuses our identifications, is analogous to the unconscious process through which we arrive at the judgments that underlie our everyday social interactions. It is to this “visceral principle;’ the psychic operation of identification, that Sullivan’s work constantly returns.

Nicholas Baume

Emily Hall Tremaine Curator of Contemporary Art